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How to succeed in business without losing your mind

29 May 2014

We have all been there. We have all felt that thud of dread when an email from that person drops into our inbox.

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We have all hunched over our desks wishing that we could become invisible when work is being thrown at us from all directions. We have all felt our hearts beating a little faster when our work is returned to us bleeding with red ink. These pressures are part-and-parcel of working in a highly productive and competitive profession and we need to learn to manage them, but how often do we give a second thought to the deeper aspects of our mental health when we are at work, or the mental health of our colleagues?

Our own worst enemy?

Discussions about mental health have an undeniable stigma in the workplace. At work, we are supposed to appear strong and capable in our role, and hopefully strong enough and capable enough to progress to another role. It is only natural to be concerned that you might expose yourself to the raised eyebrows of your colleagues by admitting that your job is taking its toll on your mental health – surely such an admission is tantamount to saying that you are not good enough to be there? Looking at it another way, the Office for National Statistics reported in June 2013 that the highest instances for mild to moderate mental ill health occur in women between 50 and 54 (the classic 'women of a certain age' bracket) and in those who are divorced or separated.  Once certain features like this become defined then – whether or not it is even possible for you to possess them – they become features to avoid and the sense of stigma increases as people seek to prove that they are not part of 'that group'.

Colleagues of those who are suffering from mental ill health are likely to have some gripes of their own. If you found out that someone in your team was being signed off work for six weeks because of depression or anxiety, putting aside your genuine concern, might one of your initial reactions not be: 'Well, we could all do with some time off'? It would be an ignorant reaction, but it would also be an understandable one. One of the results of working in a highly pressurised environment is that it can become hard not to see mental ill health as an extension of the way we all feel sometimes: overworked, stressed, exhausted. This is why the topic carries such a stigma – it can seem as though those who are suffering are simply not able to withstand the 'normal' pressures that come with work.

But are the pressures 'normal'? On 15 February last year David Latham, an IP partner at Hogan Lovells, jumped in front of a tube. At the inquest into his death the coroner heard that the 58 year old was worried about a relatively minor evidence point on a case he was working on. He had become 'inconsolable' despite constant reassurance from his colleagues and external counsel who considered that his concerns were unjustified.  Removed from the immediate sphere of what was going on in that case (and in David Latham's interpretation of it) it is impossible to imagine why anything at work could drive someone to end their life.  Having said that, there is certainly something about the obstacles we encounter at work that can lead us to feel particularly trapped. Perhaps this is because we lawyers assess our success at work in such a binary way: we win or lose a case; a deal completes or it falls through. Even when we know we have done the best we can, a feeling of success is hard to achieve when it is measured on those terms.

Who's the boss?

Employers know it is important for their employees to maintain their health and they contribute accordingly. It is hard to find an employment package in the City of London that does not include private health and dental care, a tax-free bike and subsidised gym membership. Obviously, physical health and mental health are not mutually exclusive, so perhaps that investment in the care of your body could well be interpreted as an investment in the care of your mind. The RPC private healthcare package certainly covers all kinds of treatments that can be used in the event of mental ill health, but the perceived primary purpose of these benefits is that employees may fall back on excellent physical healthcare in the event of illness or accident – not that they should take time to invest in and look after their mental health.

However, the tide has started to turn. In 2009 Herbert Smith ran a training programme to educate its staff about how to recognise and deal with symptoms of mental ill health following a report from LawCare (a health advice line for the legal profession) that the recession was causing record numbers of lawyers to suffer from stress and depression. And following the death of David Latham (but not in direct response to it), Hogan Lovells established an on-site confidential counselling service that is available two days per week for its staff as part of its health and wellbeing policy. RPC has not fallen behind this curve: we have an employee assistance programme called Workplace Options that provides 24/7 access to a confidential helpline for employees (and their families and friends) to discuss anything from the challenges of a career to concerns about retirement – and everything in between.

We can't strike out on our own

Without wishing to detract from the support that we should obviously give to such initiatives, there are some glaring issues. Most of them require some kind of positive action on the part of employees – the Hogan Lovells' on-site counsellor is only available on a self-referral basis; you have to recognise and accept that you need some support in order to phone the Workplace Options helpline. It creates a vicious cycle, but we all know that it is when we are most in need of help that we are least able to ask for it. And what about the practical issues that arise if a colleague requires serious support for their mental health? Does the facility exist in our teams for someone to be signed off (or even attend regular counselling sessions) without their colleagues becoming burdened? This is the root of the stigma that is attached to mental ill health in the workplace. You cannot admit that you are suffering and take steps to deal with it without someone else – most likely a colleague of equal status – having to rescue your work from you. In a competitive profession this undoubtedly affects the way in which your capability and your career potential are viewed by your colleagues. So there is the rub: how do we disassociate capability from mental ill health?

Truly, the only way that this can be achieved is if we see people who have come through the other side. Stephen Fry, JK Rowling and countless other public figures have spoken extensively about their experiences of mental ill health and worked hard to de-stigmatise the topic in general public discourse. Similarly, Kevan Jones MP and John Woodcock MP have both spoken openly about their experiences with depression, and both are still working as effective and successful MPs in the north of England. (Doubtless they have given someone else in Parliament some hope in the process.) So what about those figures in our own profession? Those who understand the unique pressures and obstacles that we face? Where are the lawyers?

Rebecca Rose

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